Despite considerable progress in the past decades, ambient air pollution remains the number one environmental cause of death in the EU, still leading to about 400.000 premature deaths each year in the EU due to elevated levels of fine particles, nitrogen dioxide and ozone. Air pollution also continues to harm ecosystems as more than halve of the EU territory is exposed to excess nitrogen deposition (eutrophication) and ozone concentrations. This causes reduced biodiversity, crop yields and other material damage.
EU environmental policy focusses on developing and implementing a clean air policy framework that reinforces national, regional and local policies for those aspects of the air quality problem that Member States cannot handle effectively or efficiently alone. EU policies also aim at implementing the Union's international obligations in the field of air pollution, having as main actors the citizens, to co-design and co-implement projects ; and at integrating environmental protection requirements into, for example, industry, construction, urban planning and design, energy, transport, urban farming and agriculture sectors.
In many Member States city authorities are either responsible for developing, implementing and evaluating official air quality plans under Directive 2008/50/EC or for city air quality plans that are linked to official regional air quality plans under Directive 2008/50/EC. Even if there are official regional air quality plans, cities often play a major role, as they tend to be the big economic centre of the region, with a concentration of population, traffic and industry. The fact those exceedances of PM (Particulate Matter) and NO2 in many cities in many countries persist, despite air quality action plans, indicate that innovative solutions and improvements in the approach are necessary: a better insight in where and when the air pollution problems may occur and how innovative solutions can contribute to solutions would be very welcome.
Urban authorities are relevant actors to implement air quality measures. Indeed, they are local actors with territorial knowledge and control over a range of instruments such as urban planning, infrastructure/traffic management, housing permits, parking policy etc., which allows them to steer and promote innovative solutions. They also generally control local budgets and employ the staff that have to do any implementation and to take or enforce measures in the case of smog episodes or long-term air quality plans.
The framework of the 3rd and 5th UIA call for proposals addressed the following common issues:
- Innovative mobility solutions and clean commuting, such as low or no emission modes of transport; innovative modality options like e-bikes, cargo bikes or car sharing; and low Emission Zones and/or Congestion Charging to reduce the impact of commuter traffic from suburban and other areas surrounding the city (centre) on urban air quality.
- Clean air citizen science, with the use of indicative air quality measurements (e.g. through deployment of reliable low-cost sensors) to complement the official air quality monitoring stations.
- Air Quality monitoring and modelling, with the development and test of tools to establish better source inventories of air pollution and high resolution modelling tools to identify urban air pollution hot spots;
- Clean air communication, with innovative approaches that adequately target key segments of the local population, such as in schools, the construction sector and the health community, to further sensitise citizens and stimulate behavioural and cultural change.
The 3rd UIA call for proposals (2018) also focused on healthy designs of public areas stimulating cycling and walking; nature-based solutions in cities (e.g. trees and plants for air quality, but based on evidence of air quality benefits); and innovative local and regional financing mechanisms (taxation, PPP's…). Additionally to these commons themes, the 5th call for proposals (2020) called cities on to maximize synergies between energy/climate and air quality measures locally; test innovative actions on urban planning, mobility, energy and information, to reduce air pollution exposure of vulnerable groups; and designing and testing innovative approaches to clean air policies across different levels of governance.